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Abhay: WEAPONS OF MASS DIPLOMACY – No Whammies, No Whammies

Abhay Khosla

This one’s about WEAPONS OF MASS DIPLOMACY, a 2014 release of the hit French graphic novel by “Abel Lanzac” and Christophe Blain, English-Language Edition Published by SelfMadeHero, Translated by Edward Gauvin.  It’s about a young speechwriter who has to draft France’s responses to a “growing international crisis in the Middle East,” based on true events, from the run-up to the Iraq War.

So, hopefully, crazy people don’t leave crazy person comments…?  Fingers crossed?  I tried to pare down expressing my own political beliefs some, to hopefully avoid that.  For example, I took out the part where I compared Richard Perle’s soul to photographs of advance-stage STD sores.  I took out an extremely graphic and intensely erotic description of what I think sex and chocolate will be like the day Dick Cheney dies (spoiler warning: better than usual).  Uhm, you know, I tried my somewhat-est, so… fingers crossed…

After the jump, it’s the after-jump, and after the after-jump, it’s the hotel jump, and something something brand name of champagne!

In March 2003, during the run-up to the U.S. conquest of Iraq, the makers of French’s Mustard felt it necessary to issue a press release to remind the public that “The only thing French about French’s Mustard is the name. For the record, French’s would like to say there is nothing more American than French’s Mustard.

“The anti-France fervor that the Republican party had whipped up in 2003 was such that even a mustard company feared that our great hot-dog loving country would turn against it, kids.”

Mustard-Obsessed Grandpa, the hilarious new character I’m workshopping.

* * *

For a time machine back to that time, from the French perspective, we now have translated for North American audiences Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, a roman a clef by Antonin Baudry (under the pen-name Abel Lanzac), a former writer for the Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister of France) Dominique de Villepin and famed cartoonist Christophe Blain, author of Gus & His Gang and most recently, a pleasurable nonfiction profile of Michelin-starred French chef, Alain Passard, entitled In the Kitchen with Alain Passard.  A hit in France, the book has already been adapted into a Cesar-award winning film entitled The French Minister. You know: another comic book movie; I don’t know if the trailer has that “Ooga Chakka” song on it, but for all our sakes, I certainly hope to God it does!  For the sake of the children.  Our children love who love to Ooga Chakka.  

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy doesn’t seem so concerned with score-settling, or indulging in any sort of “I told you so” business that would certainly be well-deserved. I think I’d have to describe it as a very kind work, considering the history involved.

But the Iraq War itself doesn’t really seem to be the book’s primary concern– it’s more the backdrop for the book’s true goal, making light of the foibles, egos, petty feuds and personality quirks of the diplomats caught up in those historical circumstances, in the hopes of celebrating, mocking and demystifying their work.  Various historic details are lightly hidden under obvious pseudonyms or kept purposefully vague, though it’s hard to imagine a present-day reader not filling in many blanks themselves.

The first half of the book is more focused on comedy than history, at least, crafting a sustained comedic performance for the de Villepin-analogue “Alexander Taillard de Vorms” in particular– a performance in the fullest sense of the word, combining both dialogue and body language to create a complete character. “de Vorms” crackles with nervous energy, lets loose monologues, has good days, bad days; showers; eats; babbles; inspires.  It’s a pretty goddamn lively performance…

To pull it off, Blain utilizes a range of techniques, most notably a particular favorite pioneered perhaps most famously by Jules Feiffer in his Village Voice comics: cutting away the background and allowing the characters to exist in empty space, so as to focus the reader on the physical tics of the comedic character’s performance. Dance-B

That technique, in the right hands, can be particularly effective not only because it foregrounds the speaker’s physical presence, but also subtly indicates how the speaker has dominated the attention of whomever they’re speaking to. I like how it thrusts the reader into that other character’s point-of-view, how the reader is reduced, like the other characters in the room, to being the speaker’s helpless audience. Blain utilized the technique often in the Passard book, as well, but there was approaching his subject with a more respectful tone, whereas in Weapons, he is often operating in a lampoon mode that allows him a wilder degree of expression with his performance.

***

“From the time I was a kid and I would ask for explanations from my mother and she said, “because.” That world of people who could say “because” and get away with it — starting with my mother and ending with George W. Bush — has driven me crazy. [...]. If my work is about anything at the beginning it is this counter-attack on mindless authority.”

Jules Feiffer

The book overall?

Results vary.

There’s certainly a pleasure to the de Vorms performance “Lanzac” and Blain have crafted– it’s difficult to remember another comic that so acutely captures what it’s like to have someone you’re able to observe acting ridiculous nevertheless speaking down to you like you’re a fucking idiot, down to the very body language involved. The character is a warts and all portrayl– often difficult or exasperating, but it’s also conveyed why he has the job that he has, how he’s suited for it. One is left with the sense of having met a fully realized character, which seems a worthwhile goal (and perhaps an underrated goal). That the “character” is a real person of some modern historic significance adds a certain interest, as well, though this is probably far moreso the case for French audiences than those in the U.S.

And the gentle mockery of the de Villepin character and his team does give some weight to the ending. de Villepin’s speech to the UN rejecting military intervention in Iraq comes short pages depicting ministers sneezing on his character, their bodies crammed into tiny planes. On page 198, de Villepin’s speech is delivered; on page 178, he’s being sneezed on. It’s not full-on end of Caddyshack, but it makes it a little more sweet.

On the other hand?

Lanzac-Blain sometimes misjudge what’s interesting about the story, and in the moments the book resembles a Devil Wears Prada for international diplomacy, an “education of a boy as to what working a hard job entails” story, well, that just doesn’t feel as worthwhile as the parts of the book observing the ecosystem of that office. This is nowhere more true than in their insistence on focusing on the Lanzac character’s relationship with his girlfriend. Being made by Frenchmen, a sizable portion of the comic concerns the most pressing questions of our time for Frenchmen: “can a French guy still get decently laid by his girlfriend while he’s busy writing speeches and diplomatic visits to the UN?

Indeed, the comic even bizarrely ends on a hopeful note– not about the future of international diplomacy or the future of the Middle East, of course, but a hopeful note that this random French guy is going to soon be having some of that sweet, sweet French sex with his lady-love.

Spoiler warning: after the conclusion of the narrative presented in the book, international diplomacy and the Middle East are about to get more thoroughly fucked by the United States than “Lanzac” or his poor girlfriend could ever hope to be.

***

“If he weren’t as he was, France wouldn’t have said, Non, we won’t participate in the Iraq War. The process leading up to that was chaotic and very strange, but the decisions, and the results, were rational. That’s what I wanted to show in the book and in the film—how irrational processes can lead to rational results. … In France, everybody pretends now that we were against this war, but it’s not true at all. The vast majority of the French elite, including the left-wing intellectuals, were trying to convince Villepin to follow Bush. When I heard him deliver his speech, I cried. I knew it was important. But I also knew that it wouldn’t stop the war. Those are the limits of speeches, the limits of debate, the limits of the pursuit of truth.”

Antonin Baudry aka Abel Lanzac aka Arthur Vlaminck aka The Mighty Specialist (according to the Wu-Tang Name Generator)

The book concludes with de Villepin’s February 2003 speech to the UN, that followed various lies told to the U.N. by Colin Powell. de Villepin knows that Powell’s intelligence is horseshit; everyone knows. It doesn’t fucking matter.  According to the Downing Street Memo, as of July 2002, Bush had already “made up his mind” to conquer Iraq even though “the case was thin“. It didn’t matter if the case was thin: “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”  Everything the U.S. does in this book is a farce, just bad theater.

The French get to have popular comics and movies about how they weren’t stupid enough to go along with the U.S.’s decision to conquer Iraq.  I can’t say I didn’t feel a jealousy reading it…

It’s interesting, being raised in the United States, we’ve gotten to cast the Bad Guys of History as someone else– usually either the Germans or if the movie’s set in the future or in outer space, upper-class British people. Both of whom have sucked in the past, to be fair, but.  Reading Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, it’s another opportunity to see how after our empire has finally gotten done with the crumblin’, we’re totes going to be pretty awesome bad guys in all the movies, at least. We’re going to make Darth Vader look like a puppy crapping solid gold statuettes of Tina Turner  over at the local rainbow factory (people like Tina Turner statuettes, right?  It’s late at night and I can’t remember Stuff I Like, which is probably … probably not a good sign). “Colin Powell” is going to be the name of some moustachiod villain jumping up and down on babies in some future Balinese Spielberg’s robo-movies.

(Calling it now: Bali is the throne island of the next great empire of Earth, and also movies get replaced by robo-movies which are like movies that clean your home. CALLING IT!).

***

“What was insidious about the ’00s view of the world was that it assumed certain cynical things as a given: that the fashion world is and always will be corrupt, that the molestation of young women by older and more powerful men is tradition, that people can be manipulated through fear. It assumed that what was in the interest of a few powerful men was naturally what was right for the masses. The decade kicked off with Bush’s victory over Al Gore, in which the general public will was overridden on a technicality, and went right into a misguided response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which established a general atmosphere of fear and sparked a depressing wave of American anti-Islamic sentiment the Bush presidency rode into an unnecessary war. The ’00s were a bully. The whole decade revolved around the public and private erasure of consent.”

Molly Lambert

“The aide [to President Bush] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Ron Suskind.

“Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence.”

Mustard-Obsessed Grandpa.

It’s strange to even remember, that year.

2003 wasn’t a great year personally; historically, not so fun, either. After what had happened during the election, I just never felt like it was in doubt that those jag-offs were going into that country. Not really.  It was just, like, watching this car wreck.  I would read all of these foreign policy people or journalists who specialized in the region, and they’d all say the exact same thing, about how after the invasion would be a mess and a civil war and ethnic cleansing and repercussions in the region and blah blah blah.  If you ever hear bullshit about how “we didn’t see it coming” what the consequences would be if we went in– utter horseshit; people just didn’t care; they didn’t want to hear it; they wanted to hear we’d be “greeted as liberators” and the whole “Create a Democracy” thing would only take a couple weeks.  The information was out there– nobody cared.  At least if you knew where to look.  You’d turn on the TV or read some American newspaper and it would just be this uncut gibberish.

And the people who spewed that gibberish are still around.  They’re going to end up being the people who write the histories of it. And I was a younger person so I didn’t realize that… What makes it shitty isn’t that history’s written by the winners.  It’s that history’s written by the assholes, by the yes men, by the fucking toadies.

That’s the other thing that I thought about while reading Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, while watching Colin Powell spread false intelligence to the United Nations, his great legacy to world history. Just how hardening all of that was to watch, everything that lead up to the war. I was probably pretty cynical before that, but afterwards? Fucking forget it!  I mean, with me, it was always going to be one thing or another, but…

I’m more a comedy nerd than a politics / history nerd, so for me, when I think of speeches, I don’t think of Powell or de Villepin, though. I think about Conan O’Brien’s speech during the last Tonight Show.

“All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.””

And I was thrilled when he said it– it was some goddamn thrilling television. And when I watch it again on Youtube, I still feel something.

But obviously the “be kind” part is a fucking challenge for me– that part never really fucking sunk in, I guess. Never really got the hang of that motherfucker. Whoops.

And the actual “don’t be cynical” part? Ooh, shit, I don’t know– that’s always sounded like a tough nut, just when you start thinking about that war, those assholes, the corruption, journalist after journalist disgracing themselves; after what people did to each other during Katrina, after Catholic church scandals, after I don’t know how many “car companies don’t mind if they murder you” scandals now, after seeing how veterans get mistreated, after prison scandals and I don’t know how many police scandals, and food– oh god, what we’re being fed and… I’d have a harder time listing American institutions that I think are in even remotely decent shape, that I think “Oh okay, I guess that’s not completely fucked.” Uh, those creme-filled cookies at 7-11 are pretty good…? Besides those, uh… fuck!

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy isn’t a book about diplomacy saving the day– it can’t be. That’s not how it went; it went shitty. But the world is always breaking shitty– that’s just how people like it to be, I guess, because it kinda keeps doing that and HA HA no one seems to mind oh fuck!

No, what’s pleasant about Weapons isn’t that it’s about saving the day, saving the world– it’s that it’s about standing for values, standing for the values of diplomacy even when diplomacy itself has not worked. There’s a poetry to that, and I think it’s the same reason that Conan O’Brien speech will always mean something to me even if I’m not great at actually doing anything he’s recommending:  that it’s fundamentally about the heroism of continuing to believe in simple, basically decent values even when you’ve lost.

I think that’s a pretty nice kind of story to read, even if the work itself is an imperfect one. And it’s just a little sad when you think about it, that Americans don’t tell those stories more often.

Hopefully our future Balinese warlords know better.

***

5 Responses to “ Abhay: WEAPONS OF MASS DIPLOMACY – No Whammies, No Whammies ”

  1. Crazy person reporting in. So Goddamned nice to hear someone else say “Yes, we knew it was wrong and we knew it was lies. And nobody around us cared.”

    My dad had someone stand there and say that he didn’t want American troops sent to Iraq because he hated the troops and wanted them to die. Which they’d do… more of… here? And not of course that the war was just or unjust or a good or bad idea, just “you hate the troops!”

    My dad had gotten to ride along on a “your son is dead” home visit with his CO during the Vietnam war (drafted of course), and he still can’t talk about that pain, that secondhand pain, without his voice cracking. He’s a better man than I am, because all he said to the guy accusing him was “That’s insulting. Don’t ever speak to me again.”

  2. “My dad had someone stand there and say that he didn’t want American troops sent to Iraq because he hated the troops”– Exactly that. That’s exactly what it was like, all the time!

  3. Abhay, I’ve been a fan of yours for years, and the fact that you’ve cracked the “compare it to Conan’s Tonight Show speech” form of comics criticism shows me that none of that time was wasted. If that sounds sarcastic, it’s not—I’m thrilled.

  4. I have no idea how this will come across — rather grotesquely, I’m afraid — but I had to write in to say that it is that tender, glorious, most-likely-bullied-in-adolescence heart of yours that keeps me — us, I’d wager — coming back to your writing on comics (not that your writing on, say, aluminum patio umbrellas would have a lesser effect — I very much doubt people seek out your writing for the particular topics you broach, rather than the particular manner in which said broaching is conducted).

    Fuck, this is fan mail, isn’t it? I promised myself I’d never be in that position, but I guess it’s far too late, now: here’s some love from Brazil, Abhay. Sometimes all it takes is a lawyer’s musings on funnybooks to quicken one’s withered, cynical core — who could have guessed?

    P.S. I will always and forever hate your inconsistent spelling. HATE! Still love ya, though.

  5. Thanks! That’s very kind.

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